Teaching in a college, questions that I often found myself debating with my students ranged from how the book industry is dying, how parents don’t know how to make their kids interested in reading, how people prefer their phones over their books, to how only bestsellers work, all other books being just the dinosaurs in the room which are waiting for that last meteor in the form of a new Pokémon-like game to wipe them clean. Yet somehow our country at the moment has over 10 literary festivals proliferating like over-eager pigeons with people from different parts of the country thronging to them, spending time listening to writers they might have never read. This disconnection intrigued me, arousing the sleeping giant of a curious cat, the Sherlock Holmes that resides in all of us. So, I did what any (in)sane person in my place would do: I quit my job, changed cities and came to Kolkata and joined the team of Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF).
Did the gamble pay off? Well I get paid a lot less and have work hours which, lets say, are not the kind that us government type people are very comfortable with. But in the last one year, I have met writers and readers who many of us may not know but are quietly changing the world as we know it, I have had heated debates about whether Dylan truly deserved the Nobel, I had worked with a team that collectively mourned with me when an Eco passed away or who all dressed up as Harry Potter characters to welcome the new Rowling book.
This year, the festival, which is from 15 to 18 January in the scenic St Paul’s cathedral grounds and the about-to-be-hundred Oxford Bookstore, has chosen to stand in solidarity with the idea of inclusiveness in a world which is sinking into the abyss of boundaries and borders. Bringing together music in its Plugin-The Music Festival with Underground Authority and other bands performing, the children’s festival, Oxford Junior Literary Festival, writers like Shashi Tharoor, Devdutt Pattanaik, Raj Kamal Jha, Nayantara Sahgal and many more, we have a festival that is taking the demons by the horns and telling them we are not going to go silently into the night.
As I sit writing this in the middle of my workday (yes, we are allowed such luxuries. Now you know why I love this job!), with earphones blasting Queen into my ears and pre-festival mayhem working its way around my team, I realise I am lucky to be part of something which, in times like this, works with the aim of making the world a little more debate-friendly, giving those new poets, musicians, readers, believers, shy-closeted writers like me a place to be at home, giving in to our crazy dreams of writing that one thing that will change the world. For every shutting down of dissent and debate, we have festivals like AKLF which bring together the yays and the nays in the same place and make them take a pledge to have each other’s back. As Dylan says,
“Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again.”
Come to AKLF 2017. Speak, listen, know, make up your mind and then unmake it again.